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Where Is the Truth in Post-Truth Time?

Where Is the Truth in Post-Truth Time?


On June 3-4, a conference entitled ‘Beyond Post-Truth: Media Landscapes in the “Age of Insecurity”’ was held in St. Petersburg. The conference was jointly organized by the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities (IGITI) at HSE University, the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe at GWZO Leipzig, the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, and Justus-Liebig-University Giessen. 

The HSE News Service spoke with the organizers and participants about the main ideas and goals of the conference, including Daria Petushkova, postgraduate of School of Philosophy at HSE; Jan Surman, Research Fellow at the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities; and Prof. Dr. Andreas Langenohl of the Institute for Sociology atJustus-Liebig-Universität in Germany.

The idea behind the post-truth conference 

‘The idea for the conference actually came from a Facebook post – when we were holding a conference entitled “A New Culture of Truth? On the Transformation of Political Epistemologies since the 1960s” in Erfurt. Daria noted that it would be nice to hold it in Russia as well – and so we did,’ says Jan Surman. ‘But in fact, there are several continuities here. We are working with colleagues in Erfurt and Leipzig on an ongoing project about political epistemologies, which is increasingly becoming an investigation of the most recent transformations of political-philosophical concepts. In Moscow, Daria and I have a project called “Cultures of Critique” that involves critical investigation of the present time. So “post-truth” is just a stone’s throw from it.’

Why post-truth? 

As Jan Surman stated, if you live in France or Russia, post-truth is omnipresent. People mostly use it in a way that implies that there is something as a past truth that was governing our lives, often in connection with security provided by the media and science. Clearly, this bygone era did not exist; it is more a myth, a kind of false security of a possibility that we could return to a time of strict division between truths and lies, to a time when people allegedly knew what was right and wrong. Clearly, much has changed in recent years in the political, social and media landscape, but using ‘post-truth’ or ‘fake news’ uncritically does not make us understand what the change is and where it happens.

‘So while we use post-truth in the title,’ says Jan Surman, ‘our conference in fact aimed to establish new ways of talking about the phenomenon of informational insecurity but also to better understand the mechanisms behind the “merchants of doubt” to allude to a recent book by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway.’

Research on post-truth is actually at a moment when scholarly interest and social interest are coming together and growing apart simultaneously.

Jan Surman proposed:

‘In fact, when we started the conference in Erfurt that I mentioned above, we started from the critique of “science marches”: clearly, there are institutions trying to discredit scientific research, but these marches brought back science as an instance of absolute truth, which is problematic, especially from the point of view of historians or sociologists who have put considerable effort in recent decades to demonstrate that science and knowledge are always “situated” and dependent on many local factors. Thus, there is a tension between the societal need for security and of instances providing it, and researchers showing that the basis of this security is not “strong” and cannot remain unquestioned.

So now, the intention behind our conference is not to deny the fact that there are institutions spreading “fake news” or lies, but rather to look at which mechanisms make people believe in different truths and accept them. As strange as it might seem, our proposal for societal security is accepting that there are no instances in which absolute certainty is provided.’

Word of the year for 2016

In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ the word of the year. The term is defined as ‘denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

Daria Petushkova continued:

‘We are told by experts that in the post-truth era we are facing the problem of emotions replacing facts and falsehoods replacing news. Political observers state that “we have entered a post-truth era and that there is no coming back” but what does it actually mean? The prefix ‘post’ signals explicitly that ‘truth’ seems to be no longer relevant.

The analysis Hannah Arendt provided more than five decades ago in ‘Truth and Politics’ becomes crucial in these circumstances. She argued that ‘the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.’

So how should we actually be dealing with the rise of this ‘new sensibility’, which treats emotional reactions and personal opinions higher than strong evidence and credible information?

One of the main aims of our conference was to embrace the spectrum of the questions that derive from the current ‘post-truth situation’ with a special focus on its specific vagueness.

Post-normativity should replace post-truth

Prof. Dr. Andreas Langenohl of theInstitute for Sociology at Justus-Liebig-Universität added that post-truth refers to a widespread sentiment that political communication, and political culture, have lost a fundamental normative orientation towards the truth, as opposed to lies.

He undertook conceptual research study in order to point out that ‘post-truth’ might be an inadequate term to describe current transformations taking place in the political and public sphere.

‘We should consider replacing the notion of “post-truth” with that of “post-normativity” which, to my mind, better captures a situation in which political messages are often reduced to the question of truth or lie,’ he shared as the main message of his report at the conference.


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